A career-defining accomplishment was here for Halima Aden, a coveted spot in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, a mountaintop moment for any model, a sledgehammer to a glass ceiling in becoming the first woman in a burkini and a hijab to grace the pages. And as the 21-year old scrolled through her Instagram feed this week, what she saw was a timeline littered with hate. This isn’t what SI Swimsuit is about, wrote one feckless commenter. I don’t think you know what the actual purpose of a hijab is, wrote another. This is a complete mockery.
“There are people that think I shouldn’t be [in the magazine] and there are people that think I’m not representing [Islam] in the right way,” Aden said. “So I’m getting it from both sides.”
Bothered? Sitting inside the lobby of a lower Manhattan hotel on Wednesday, a sleek white coat covering her slender shoulders, a brown scarf wrapped around her head, Aden could only laugh. Fifteen years ago, Aden was a resident of Kakuma, a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, her family fleeing the horrors of the Somali civil war. At times, she didn’t know when her next meal would come. And too many times she knew when a bout with malaria would. Her first home was a tent, her next a hut with furniture made of little more than hardened mud. Every few weeks families would crowd around a list hoping to be among those selected for relocation. It took seven years for Aden’s family to see their names on it.
Hurt? In the early 2000’s, Aden’s family was routed from Kenya to St. Louis—that’s where things got really frightening. In her first week, Aden fell asleep to the sounds of gunfire. Trips to the grocery store were an adventure. Aden’s mother, Rukia, didn’t speak English. Hand soap was once confused with pasta sauce. On a few occasions, Aden and her brother, Said, washed their hair with dishwasher detergent. The public schools didn’t offer ESL classes, leaving Aden to sit through early grade school, bewildered. Her teachers thought she was shy. Aden just wanted to know what they were saying.
Angry? If only these were the first trolls to come for her. In 2016, Aden—then living in St. Cloud, Minn.—entered the Miss Minnesota USA pageant. She was one of hundreds of entrants. She was the only one in a hijab and a burkini. She didn’t expect to place. She finished among the top-15 semifinalists.
The pageant brought Aden national attention. She didn’t ask for it. She didn’t join to make a social statement. She wanted the experience, she says. And she wanted Muslim girls everywhere to know they had options. “Girls—join swimming!” Aden says, laughing. “You don’t have to wear a bikini if you don’t want to wear a bikini. Wear a burkini if you want to be a part of it. I wanted to show girls that they had an option. A lot of girls opt out of swimming because they don’t think they have one.”
Indeed, there’s a theme in the social media criticism, Halima says: Most of it comes from men. “My choice, my decision to do the things that I’ve done has nothing to do with you boys and everything to do with us,” Aden said. “You don’t know what it’s like to experience being kicked out of a pool or banned from a beach for wearing a burkini. I want girls to see, no matter what sometimes you are going to get backlash from your own community. But you shouldn’t let that bother you. And really, the fact that in 2019 a swimsuit creates this much attention … I mean, why are women still being judged for what they wear?”
The criticism will always be there. Halima knows it. She accepts it, even laughs at it. “Especially the ones that confuse a burka and a burkini,” she says. It’s the words of those who are inspired that resonate. The women that messaged her to say that they learned how to swim because of her. Who say they slipped on a burkini and went to the beach after seeing her in one. Who thank her for putting herself out there and taking the risk. At an event this week, a woman told Aden that she planned to wear one—not because she was Muslim, but to prevent sunburns.
To Aden, this is just the beginning. She recently collaborated Modanisa, an online fashion retailer, on a collection of turbans and shawls. It’s a 47-piece collection ranging from sportswear and high fashion that debuted at last month’s Istanbul Modest Fashion Week. She cites Tyra Banks—a model turned mogul who appears on one of the covers of this year’s Swimsuit issue—as one of her role models. She’s a ball of energy with a 1,000-watt smile.
“My mom used to tell me, all the way back in elementary school, that it’s OK if someone doesn’t like you,” Aden said. “Some people are not going to like me, some people are not going to like my journey. I accept that. I’m just going to stay true to myself. My whole motto is: ‘Don’t change yourself, change the game.’ And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.”
See all of Halima's beautiful SI Swimsuit 2019 photos: